Foreign Exchange Student

I was prepared for the culture when I dropped Andy off for her first year at Hampshire. I mean, as a mid-20th century guy, I’m still getting used to discretionary personal pronouns. But coming from a very liberal, west-coast-folksinging-Kumbaya sort of family, I was pretty well tuned into what to expect. Three years later, making my first foray into semi-rural Missouri to drop Jem off for college this weekend at Missouri Science and Tech was…different.


Ready to roll – Jem “assumes the position”

Let me pause for a moment to reinforce the gravity of the trip. Jeremy, as y’all recall, is our youngest. Dropping him off at college means that Devon and I are finally, officially, after 22 years, empty nesters. Honestly, we’re kinda terrified of what happens next. We don’t actually get to find out for another few weeks, as Andy’s home for the summer, working at SLAC. D and I won’t get to confront that gaping maw of a quiet house until she leaves at the beginning of September.


No, really – he’s just tired…

But back to Jem’s college. Rolla itself felt familiar as any college town I’ve been to, but the drive out from St. Louis was an eye opener. I think the neighboring town’s candy industry (see below) was what first caught my eye, but the billboard advertising St. James’ “Cowboy Church/Guns and Ammo” made me swerve.


Just keep driving… [Image courtesy of]

No, we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Actually, that’s not fair – I expect the average Kansan would feel right at home along Interstate 44. But coming from Palo Alto, the midwestern Bible-belt crossover is a bit of a shock to the system.

Mind you, as much of a head-spinner as it is for an ossified old hippie like me, I think it’ll be a great environment for Jeremy. He’s always been quick to embrace people for who they are, eager to understand their differences, where they’re coming from, and to appreciate the special gifts that their unique background brings to the table.

Naturally, having grown up in the liberal cloisters of Palo Alto, immersing himself in the conservative heartland won’t be an easy ride. He’s a stranger in a strange land, but I can’t help but think the experience will serve him well, and build much-needed bridges in our deeply-divided and polarized country.

Of course, Jem didn’t choose MST because he wanted to be a cultural ambassador. He chose it because it has one of the most kick-ass metallurgy and material sciences departments in the country. It’s a hands-on program for self-described steel geeks and material nerds. You don’t spend your first two years sitting in a classroom learning the theory of something you’re not going to get to touch until senior spring; you get into the lab from the get-go and start messing with stuff. They’ve got an active mine you go down into to learn about extraction. They’ve got a freaking underground suspension bridge with a full spec stretch of suspended highway for the civil engineers. They’ve got a nuclear reactor, though you don’t get to operate the reactor until you’ve had a few classes, but I can live with that. They’ve even got an applied pyrotechnics program (note: apparently you’re not allowed to study both nuclear engineering and pyrotechnics, but I think I can live with that, too) .

Of course, Jeremy’s still nervous, but as I tell him, he’s nervous about the right things: the academics are going to be a serious step up. He’s going to be in a completely new environment, two thousand miles away from the friends and comforts of home. He’s going to be sharing a small dorm room with a complete stranger…


But it’s MST’s business to be ready for these worries, and they clearly know their business. For starters, from the moment we met Jem’s new roommate Josh, I knew they were going to be lifelong friends. I’ll spare you details so as to not intrude on their privacy, but these two young men seem well-positioned to both support and challenge each other in their new lives as engineering students. It doesn’t hurt that Josh’s warm and wonderful parents, from a few hours south in Arkansas, have already adopted Jeremy and promised that they were going to make sure he got his fill of good southern cooking. He’s in good hands, very good hands.


It was clear, as Jem’s new adoptive parents prepared to whisk both boys off to the local Walmart to pick up missing essentials, that my work was done. At least for today. I’m sure there are going to be plenty of late-night Skype sessions, care packages and oversized Amazon deliveries in the coming months. And some intensive remedial parenting when he comes home over Thanksgiving.

But he’s worked hard, incredibly hard, to get to this moment, and he’s more than ready. I can’t begin to find words to describe how proud Devon and I are of him.


Breakfast of champions at MST check in. Don’t worry – there was also popcorn and chocolate chip cookies. Beverage options were Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper and water. “Juice?” “We have Fanta…”


Took a bit of a detour on the way back for some proper southern BBQ



A plate of “Ory’s saucy BBQ” in Cuba, MO. Tasty, yes, but also so that I could say I stopped in Cuba on my way back.

2 responses to “Foreign Exchange Student

  1. Pingback: A Really Truly Empty Nest | David Pablo Cohn·

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